The Man Who was written by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne in 1993 as L’Homme Qui, based on Oliver Sacks’s 1985 best-seller, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. It has been rarely performed since, but I think its original creators would like Pooka Theatre’s sparse, empathetic production.
The programme notes smugly tell us to “call it a performance piece”, which I know for a fact is a lazy description, because they’ve ripped it from a New York Times review of an earlier production. That’s a shame, because the acting and directing in the “performance piece” itself are careful and delicate and the new, young company has evidently put sincere thought into the work. To be fair I can see why they say it, because The Man Who isn’t quite a play, while still not being any less of a theatrical experience for that.
It’s a series of short scenes set in a hospital for people with various severe neurological disorders. Occasionally the shortness of the scenes means that the doctors came across as oddly, cruelly silent and inept, but the real focus is on the patients. All the characters are played by the four members of the company, wearing white coats when playing doctors and identical light blue shirts and neat, dark trousers as the patients. Despite the pared-down set-up, one of the most striking and moving aspects of The Man Who is the psychological realism of each patient’s pain. Dreamlike images of the sea, a scrubbed-out chalk circle, a razor blade and a single source of light in a dark room aren’t just abstract representations, but have a genuine part in each person’s narrative.
The actors all play to this strength of the piece. Chris Thomson, who also plays the piano music for the production, has a scene as a twelve-year-old boy with severe autism. The raw scream he emits when his doctor (Joncie Elmore) tries to stop him leaving the room in 27 steps made the audience member next to me nearly jump out of his skin. When Thomson does finally exit, you hear his counting fade to a whisper. It’s not just a theatrical, acoustic trick: it’s the quiet voice of a boy with a real psychological need to measure out his life by numbers.
Darrell Davey plays all his characters as gentle, reasonable men with wry senses of humour and a benign bewilderment about what’s happening to them. This portrayal of the patients as calm, intelligent people humanises them and amplifies the sense of what they have lost. When a doctor asks one of them whether he’s ever been to La Rochelle, the man says yes, he’s been once in the 60s. He made love to a girlfriend there – “it was no better or worse than with any of the others” – then he came home. As Davey says it, it’s not blokey or crude, just the vulnerable, everyday boast of one young man to another. But the patient has been hospitalised in La Rochelle for the past 20 years, and the fact fades from his memory every five minutes.
Having never previously been in the Bussey Building without a significant amount of alcohol affecting my judgement, my sense of dislocation began at the box office. But it is the understated intensity of the production that fosters this sense throughout its running time.
The Man Who is playing at the CLF Art Café in the Bussey Building until 21 February. For more information and tickets, see the CLF Art Café website.